[VIEWPOINT]Work disputes miss the point

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[VIEWPOINT]Work disputes miss the point

The problem of so-called “atypical work,” or temporary and part-time employment, has again become an issue for labor-management relations.
The arguments behind helping atypical workers can be roughly summarized this way: “Atypical workers take on undesirable jobs, but in our country, they exceed half of the total workers. Atypical workers are proliferating because businesses indiscriminately employ them to lower labor costs. To solve this problem, the government should regulate the employment of atypical workers and close the wage gap.”
This argument is actually far from the truth in terms of describing and analyzing the phenomenon and suggesting a solution.
The term “atypical work,” which is currently being discussed, is an ambiguous concept. The term is not defined anywhere in the labor laws of the Republic of Korea, and it has no agreed-upon definition in the government or in the academic community.
The reason is that the distinction between atypical and typical work was originally made by individual businesses for personnel management, and thus its contents vary according to businesses. Therefore, the concept cannot be expanded to the national level.
Nevertheless, confusion is caused by expanding the concept unreasonably. For example, a wor-ker for a subcontractor of Hyundai Heavy Industry Co., Ltd. can be a typical worker for the subcontractor, having nothing to do with the principal contractor. But they are counted as the atypical workers of Hyundai Heavy Industry.
When the concept is unclear, how can we know how many atypical workers are out there, and what is the point of arguing that their wages are low?
Some say the number of atypical workers increased after the 1997-98 financial crisis as businesses were eager to cut their labor costs. However, the increase in contract workers is a global trend. In our country, the use of such workers had already begun to increase long before the financial crisis.
The trend is closely related with the growing service industry. Unlike the manufacturing industry, the service industry cannot control its stock. If customers rush in a barber shop all at once, a barber cannot serve them with ready-made haircuts.
Therefore, as demand changes, production and personnel should be flexible. Such a trend in changes to the industrial structure increases the number of contract workers all over the world.
Our country has even more reason to use these workers, mainly because of labor unions’ overprotection of regular workers. Regardless of their productivity, regular employees receive two-digit percentage pay raises every year, and they are never laid off until their businesses go bankrupt.
In this rigid structure, businesses have no other options but to reduce the number of permanent workers and rely on part-time or contract workers to go along with the global trend of flexible employment.
Are temporary workers treated worse compared to regular ones? Yes, temporary workers are paid less than their permanent counterparts. But rather than saying that temporary workers are paid less, it is more correct to say that regular workers are paid more.
Permanent ones are paid more than the market wage, which is the reason behind the wage differences. To close the gap, the problem of excessive pay of regular employees should be first solved.
Most people know that the excessive pay increases at large companies have been reason for denying pay raises to contract workers or workers at their partner companies.
In many cases, the avoidance of responsibility and selfish interest are hidden behind a plausible justification. When the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations asked for improvement in the treatment of Mexican workers, this was, in fact, a bid to protect the high-wage employment of members of the American labor union.
When interest groups distort the situation for their own ends, the government and society should calmly and rationally analyze what the problem is, then try to fix it.
If the proliferation of temporary work and the resulting wage gap are problems in our country, much of the cause lies with the labor unions. Therefore, we should find solutions in the labor unions, too.
What should be truly solved regarding the problem of temporary workers are the overprotection of full-time workers and the rigidity of industrial structure. These restrain businesses from new investment and hinders youths from getting jobs.
If the government tries to pander to those in labor circles and adopts regulation-centered labor policy, young people’s job hunts will become even more difficult. The government should keep in mind that we are entering an era when the rising unemployment rate is more important than the differences between regular and temporary work.

* The writer is a professor of economics at Sogang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Nam Sung-il
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